Maine’s governor, in an important address to residents, lamented the fact that the state’s public schools had some of the highest administrative costs in the nation and some of the lowest teacher pay. Something needs to be done about it, the governor said.
“This money should be going into the classroom,” he said.
It sounds a lot like the build-up to Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s school district consolidation proposal in 2007, an effort to merge Maine’s 290 school administrative units into 26 and slash administrative costs.
But the words belong to Baldacci’s Republican successor, Paul LePage, who made the case for public school system overhauls in his 2013 State of the State address.
Unlike Baldacci, LePage hasn’t taken on a major school consolidation proposal that’s subsumed his political capital. But he’s said that school districts should consolidate, and he’s said Baldacci’s consolidation effort didn’t go far enough.
As Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial race takes shape, one key strategy from the LePage camp has become clear: tie Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to Baldacci, a governor who didn’t leave the Blaine House particularly well liked.
That strategy was evident in the response from LePage’s camp when Michaud officially launched his campaign for governor last month.
“While Paul LePage is fixing a hospital welfare debt that existed for years, Michael Michaud is advocating more welfare spending that will send Maine back to the growing welfare of the Baldacci years,” LePage adviser Brent Littlefield wrote to reporters. “Maine people know the state cannot afford more Baldacci-Michaud years.”
But as LePage tries to make Baldacci into a liability for Michaud, the governor hasn’t acknowledged he shares more in common with his Democratic predecessor than he cares to admit.
The similarities don’t stop at their rhetoric about school district consolidation.
At an event last week, LePage encouraged low-income Mainers seeking health insurance to sign up for private coverage and told them they would qualify for subsidies that would help them pay for it.
Baldacci essentially did the same thing. One of the major initiatives from his first term in office was Dirigo Health, an effort to make insurance coverage more affordable for small businesses and individuals who aren’t covered through their jobs.
The setup was largely the same as today’s health insurance exchanges, which LePage prefers to an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program. Dirigo Health, which phases out at the end of this year, offered a private insurance plan made more affordable through subsidies.
And while LePage might not care to acknowledge it, both he and Baldacci spent substantial political capital on paying down the state’s hospital debt.
LePage made repaying the debt the central issue of this year’s legislative session, and he got the job done. Baldacci, in the final month of his 2006 re-election campaign, struck a deal with the Maine Hospital Association that put hospitals first in line for any surplus funds at the end of a budget year. Baldacci and hospital officials expected the arrangement would yield $82 million in state funds by 2010 that could be leveraged into a $221 million Medicaid debt paydown with federal matching funds included.
The two governors’ most recent policy intersection came last week, when LePage’s administration said it was seriously considering the Free ME initiative, an idea of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center that proposes eliminating the state income and sales taxes in the state’s most economically depressed counties.
Free ME is inspired by the Pine Tree Development Zones economic development program, an initiative of — you guessed it — Baldacci. The Pine Tree Zones program didn’t eliminate state taxes in a particular region, but it started as a program that virtually eliminated state taxes for businesses that expanded to certain economically depressed regions of the state.
To be sure, LePage and Baldacci are starkly different politicians, both in style and substance. But as LePage tries to make the case that Baldacci and Michaud are the same politician, Michaud could shoot back and make some of the same points about Baldacci and LePage.